The Sisters of the Holy Family is the first African-American religious order in the United States. It was founded in 1842 by Henriette DeLille (1813-1862) as a small un-recognized congregation of twelve nuns. By the turn of the century, the order had quickly grown to 150 members. In 1881, the Orleans Ballroom was for sale and was the perfect location to support the growth of the religious order. The building served as the motherhouse and school for African American girls called St. Mary’s Academy.
Two years later, the adjacent lot and site of the former Orleans Theater was sold and became Signor Faranta’s Iron Theatre as a vaudville theatre that was popular at the time. After six years, the building was consumed in a blaze and the lot was put for sale. The Sisters were quick to purchase lot and began build an orphanage for girls, called St. John Berchman’s Asylum for Negro Girls. They also built a courtyard and playground for the orphanage. The courtyard remains as the site of the current courtyard and pool for guests of the Bourbon Orleans Hotel.
By the 1960’s, the Sisters of the Holy Family had grown to over 400 nuns. They sold the property in 1964 to move to a larger convent with expanded facilities in New Orleans East where they still are located today. The property was sold to a contractor, Wilson P. Abraham, from Baton Rouge who built the gubernatorial mansion and planned to restore the former Orleans Ballroom and build a hotel.